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SEXtember: Sexual empowerment through media

Samantha Toh

Tue Sep 24 2013


SINCE the sexual revolution of the ’60s, sexuality in the media has continued to influence the lives of young women today. Samantha Toh takes a look at the trajectory of female sexual empowerment through the media we consume. 


We’ve come a long way since the sexual revolution of the 20th century.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s, popularly known as the ‘Swinging Sixties’, was a period in which young women took sexual liberation into their own hands. Conservative values such as virginity and marriage, which had for so long shaped gender roles, were forced to take a back seat to society’s changing sexual attitudes and behaviours.

With the advent of the birth control pill, racy magazines like Playboy and Playgirl as well as the championing of “singledom” and sexuality, the ’60s and ’70s challenged the sexual norms of society at that time.

It ushered in an entirely new era where sexual exploration outside the confines of traditional monogamous, heterosexual marriage not only gave momentum to the feminist and gay movements, but also grew to have far-reaching impacts on the power and position of women today.

Without a doubt, one of the main benefactors and supporters of the sexual revolution has been the entertainment industry. From books and music to television and film, entertainment outlets have lapped up society’s increasingly liberal attitude toward sex.

While the 1960s radicalised society’s views of sexuality and brought the issue into mainstream media, it can arguably be said that no one at the time could have quite anticipated the full extent of the wildly sexual culture we have today.

But perhaps the decades following the sexual revolution may have given a tiny glimpse of what was to come and how it women would become more accepting of their sexuality.

Like A Virgin – A sign of things to come

Throwing back to 1984, popstar Madonna’s hyper-sexual Like A Virgin performance at the MTV Video Music Awards was considered not only controversial, but earth shattering.

Dressed in a white wedding dress, writhing and rolling around on the stage while belting out the lyrics ‘like a virgin, touched for the very first time’, Madonna instantly got tongues wagging, and became an icon for young women everywhere.

The performance was not without criticism and scrutiny though when compared to what is now allowed at the MTV VMAs, Madonna’s 1984 performance looks almost demure.

Sex and the City – sexuality for the everyday, modern woman


Shows like Sex and the City, a favourite of women everywhere, have cemented the importance and normality of women’s sexual appetites – which in the case of characters like Samantha, appear to be well in overdrive.

Casual sex, hook ups, same sex experimentation and the occasional STD are weaved into the fabric of Sex and the City. While this might all sound potentially overwhelming for the Sex and the City virgin (pun intended), the show manages to capture the experience of the everyday, modern woman, through its exploration of the characters’ careers, friendships and love lives – of which sex naturally plays a part.

Though the show may come off as being highly unrealistic at times – what weekly columnist can afford $40,000 worth of shoes and a wardrobe full of designer pieces, haute couture at that?! – it certainly captures something very raw and real about the modern everyday woman’s existence and being sexually active is part of that.

Girls – empowering females of the 21st century

The same can be said for the HBO comedy/drama series Girls, a more recent offering that provides a glimpse into the lives of women as they navigate their way through careers, romance and friendship.

Similar to Sex and the City – albeit with a younger cast of twenty-somethings and a realistic wardrobe budget – many fans of Girls, including myself, find it easy to relate to due to its exploration of self and what it means to be a young woman in today’s world.

Thankfully, with shows like Girls available, not only can young women feel less alone in the world, it’s also a great source of empowerment too.

Hannah Horvath and her friends make their own choices. They date who they want, sleep with who they want and talk and do things that sometimes border on being vulgar, tactless and appalling. But in the end, their life choices are entirely their own and there’s empowerment in that.

50 Shades of Grey – Sexual violence begets sexual liberation?

The media’s interest and almost perverse obsession with sexuality go far beyond TV box sets, however.

While it’s been discussed on virtually every platform, it seems that no conversation about sexuality can exclude 50 Shades of Grey.

Though 50 Shades of Grey and its sequels have been accused of promoting sexual violence against women by outspoken critics, women the world over seemingly credit the erotic novel for their sexual awakening.

Countless websites discussing how 50 Shades of Grey can be introduced in the bedroom or how men can learn to like the novel’s alluring male lead, Christian Grey, use the book as inspiration for achieving more exciting and passionate bedroom action.

Sex toy sales – of which have soared sky high thanks to the series – and a peaked interest in BDSM (‘bondage discipline sadomasochism’, for the innocent) aside, what the 50 Shades trilogy really shows us is that not only do women enjoy sex, they’re keen to explore a more erotic, fantasy infused type of sex life (preferably with a ravishing Christian Grey-type thrown into the mix…).

The sex described in the books is definitely something else and, if anything, the obsession women have with these erotic novels is a reflection of their desire to be like Anastasia Steele – a woman swept off her feet by a man who loves her, takes care of her and just happens to open her eyes to a new, sensual world in which handcuffs, whips and leather play a crucial role.

While women are loving the trilogy, some husbands out there don’t quite feel the same. Check out the video below for a hilarious little song about the effects of the popular book.

Does the music industry empower young women?

Speaking of songs; though we may not be always aware of it, by listening to some of today’s music on the radio we effectively allow a stream of sexually explicit messages into our lives.

It might not seem obvious at first, considering that censored versions of these songs are broadcast, but look up the lyrics and you’ll find that 212 by Azealia Banks probably isn’t quite what you thought.

Some critics refer to the increasing sexual nature of music and the decreasing wardrobe of its artistes as the ‘slutification’ of female musicians, though I also feel that the argument of women owning their sexuality can be made here.

It may upset angry feminists but isn’t there something a little bit gratifying about a woman owning her sexuality?

Whatever your verdict on minimally dressed female musicians and their hypersexual music is, one thing is certain – the entertainment industry has provided an outlet through which generations of women have come to accept and embrace their sexuality, ultimately viewing it as a part of a personal journey of growth and understanding.

Even if it means this relatively new freedom and personal sexual expression takes the form of… this.


Has the entertainment industry – movies, books, music, television shows – shaped your ideas about sex and sexuality? Share your views with us below!